By Tim Hanlon
BARCELONA (Reuters) – After suffering two setbacks in the space of a week, Atletico Madrid will be looking to avoid a third when they travel to La Liga leaders Barcelona for Saturday’s top-of-the-table clash at the Nou Camp.
Atletico, who won the title at the stadium two years ago, surrendered top spot in La Liga to the Catalan side last weekend and were then eliminated from the King’s Cup quarter-finals by Celta Vigo on Wednesday.
Beating Barcelona would send Atletico back on top but the goals have not been flowing of late.
Diego Simeone’s side failed to find the net against Sevilla last weekend, with only four shots on target out of a total 21, and must now face Barcelona’s devastating trio of Lionel Messi, Neymar and Luis Suarez.
“It is clear that the more efficient teams in front of goal win games and our number one aim now is to improve this,” Atletico midfielder Gabi Fernandez told reporters.
“It is a blow to have been knocked out of the cup as our aim is to battle for all the trophies and hopefully this will not affect us for the league game now with Barcelona.
“We will go out to win and it is the type of massive occasion that anyone would want to play in,” he added.
Atletico’s 0-0 draw at home to Sevilla allowed Barcelona, who won away to Malaga, to move ahead on goal difference with a game in hand.
At home to an efficient Celta Vigo in Wednesday night’s cup second leg, Atletico created few chances and crashed 3-2 despite having plenty of possession.
They have been overly dependent on Antoine Griezmann, who hit his 19th goal of the campaign against Celta, and the main disappointment has been over Jackson Martinez who has struggled to settle in and not scored in his last 10 games.
While Barca have not been at their sparkling best, they can rely on their attacking aces to get them out of trouble when necessary.
Messi hit the winner in a below par performance away to Malaga last Saturday while Neymar and Suarez were both on target as Barca came from behind to beat Athletic Bilbao in the cup on Wednesday.
Meanwhile, the honeymoon period is over for Real Madrid coach Zinedine Zidane after they were held 1-1 away to Real Betis.
Real are four points off the pace in third place ahead of their home game against Barcelona’s city rivals Espanyol on Sunday but with a great chance to close the gap on at least one of the teams above them.
(Reporting by Tim Hanlon in Barcelona, editing by Alan Baldwin)